It's not easy being apolitical when it comes to Israeli films -- films that foreign audiences often view through the prism of the Israel-Palestinian/Middle East crises and hopes for the future.
Take the "The Band's Visit," Eran Kolirin's poignant and humorous feature about an Egyptian police orchestra that gets lost in a small Israeli town. Although the film portrays Egyptians and Israelis, Jews and Muslims, the story is more about cultural understanding, love and friendship than any high-falutin' political statement.
But New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis insists on putting "The Band's Visit" into the context of a political landscape.
Trailer: 'The Band's Visit'
"Mr. Kolirin also seems to be saying that a specific loneliness haunts Israel as well," she wrote in a Dec. 7 review. "Surrounded by desert, a few longingly invoke the sea, summoning a desire, but for what? Mr. Kolirin, I think, suggests that this longing is for something the poet Marcia Falk calls the 'Eternal wellspring of peace.'"
But they won't find a political message in "The Secrets," which premieres opening night, June 12, or in the spotlight premiere screening of "Noodle" on June 14.
That's because neither film deals with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the crisis in the Middle East or military life and its consequences, as many movies have in the past.
"The Secrets" is a tale of two rebellious ultra-Orthodox girls who befriend each other at a yeshiva seminary in Safed and try to help a woman using kabbalistic remedies. "Noodle" is about a Tel Aviv flight attendant who must deal with a young Chinese boy after his mother, her cleaning lady, is deported from Israel.
Religious themes? Yes. Social themes? Maybe. Political? Not at all.
The two films are part of Israel's growing trend toward smaller, character-driven films that cast Israel in a far different light from what one we might expect from watching CNN or reading the newspaper.
"If you make a movie about 'the situation,' which is bigger than anything else, you might as well write an essay in a newspaper," said Avi Nesher, director and co-writer of "The Secrets."
"People are no longer compelled to make a movie about this one subject; I think it's a maturing of the country and the culture," he said.
This trend might be one of the reasons behind the startling fact that Israelis, for the first time, went to see their own local movies more than American imports. For the second time in 20 years, Israeli films hit the $1 million mark at the local box office with five films: "The Band's Visit," "Noodle," "The Secrets," "Jellyfish" and "Beaufort," Joseph Cedar's Oscar-nominated film about the Lebanon withdrawal, the only one with a war theme.
"Israel is about many things, and if you stick to one subject, you trivialize it," Nesher said.
Nesher, 53, knows from politically themed films. His first, at age 23, was "HaLahaka," which has since become a cult classic, about an Israeli-type USO troupe entertaining soldiers after the 1967 war. It was actually another of his political films, "Oriental," a 2004 documentary about the failure of the peace process, that got him thinking about what would later become the apolitical "Secrets."
"The more you talk to people, the more you see that there is this whole agenda: women's rights," Nesher noticed after interviewing Israelis and Palestinians for "Oriental." There is a "revolution" for women's rights all over the Middle East, he said. "That's one of the main themes, as far as I'm concerned."
To call a driving theme of "The Secrets" women's rights is somewhat surprising.
The film follows the budding friendship of two religious girls: Naomi (Ania Bukstein), a studious and supercilious daughter of a prominent rabbi in Bnei Brak, and Michelle (Michal Shtamler), a rebellious free spirit from France. The two both attend an iconoclastic women’s school in the mystical religious city of Safed, where “someone is always weirder than you,” as one of students at the school remarks. (It’s a phrase that’s also true of Jerusalem, an equally religious, but much less mystical city that attracts searchers.)
On their charity rounds, the girls meet a mysterious sickly foreigner, Anouk (Fanny Ardant), and decide to cure her of her past transgressions and present illness with secret tikunim (kabbalistic remedies) they must hide from the school, which is in a precarious situation within the male-dominated religious culture.
But the tikunim are not the only secrets from the eponymous title. There is the “secret” of the school’s headmistress (she hopes there will one day be a female rabbi), Anouk’s secret past (she was in prison for a crime she might or might not have committed) and, most centrally, Naomi and Michelle’s secret budding relationship.
Just how that relationship is categorized is up for debate. Late one night, the two engage in a furious mutual back massage, and later in the movie they share a deep kiss on the lips. Some might call this budding lesbianism, but “I don’t see it as that at all,” Nesher said. “They’re in an environment with no men—and they discover the whole idea of passion. They’ve never been exposed to it.”
Is this some male fantasy imaginings of what goes on behind closed (yeshiva) doors?
“When I make movies I rarely do anything from imagination,” Nesher said, noting that “almost everything in the movie happens to someone I spoke to.”
He and co-writer Hadar Galron (playwright of “Pulsa,” a popular and controversial one-woman comedy about religious women’s rights) interviewed some 50 to 60 yeshiva girls and uncovered many of the threads and “secrets” that ultimately appear in the movie: It wasn’t only the passions of young girls; in interviews and research they found that most of the yeshivas were run by daughters of powerful ultra-Orthodox fathers. Nesher sees Naomi’s father, Rabbi Hess (Sefi Rivlin), as the “tragic figure” in the film.
“They understand their daughters are brilliant, they understand the injustice, they understand the daughters can reach intellectual depth but there’s nothing they can do about it,” Nesher said.
In Israel, though, there are some women who want to change that injustice.
“The pressure is mounting to give women more power within that universe,” he said.
“The Secrets” is one of a number of recent films and TV series to focus on religious themes, such as films “Campfire” and “Ushpizin” and the TV series, “Catching the Sky.”
“It’s more and more apparent in Israel that religious people are not that different from secular people, and vice versa,” Nesher said.
Maybe religious themes have replaced military themes in Israeli cinema lately, but that doesn’t do much for “Noodle,” a heart-tugger that’s more along the lines of “August Rush” than other Israeli films.
“Israeli cinema is filled with stories that are very political and very social and rightly so, because it’s so political and social here,” said “Noodle” director and co-writer Ayelet Menahemi. “I was interested showing normal people trying to live a normal life, or at least trying to deal with normal problems.”
Noodle is the nickname of a young Chinese boy (BoaQi Chen) who is left at the house of Miri (Mili Avital), a Tel Aviv flight attendant who had employed Noodle’s mother as a housekeeper. Miri’s life is complicated: She is twice widowed and understandably guarded as a result; she is also secretly in love with her brother-in-law, who is separated from her sharp-tongued sister Gila (Anat Waxman).
Menahemi also took some of her inspiration from real life—she had met a twice-widowed stewardess, had traveled to China and Israel deported masses of illegal foreign workers in 2000.
“The immigration police had to throw out 100,000 to 200,000 people a year, Menahemi said. “Because they were so eager to fill this quota, some really bad things were happening: You’d hear this stories about people hiding in closets and jumping out of windows and families being parted. Today, it’s much better.”
But Menahemi hasn’t made an “issues” movie like “What a Wonderful Place,” Eyal Halfon’s 2005 feature about foreign workers’ lives: “I’m not trying to make any social statements or any political statements. I’m trying to make a human statement, if at all.”
Menahemi said she was interested in how people deal with other people’s suffering. Although it seems like Miri is saving Noodle, he is also saving her from loneliness.
“By developing compassion and tolerance toward others, this is the only way to understand their own suffering and at the same time, transcend it,” Menahemi said. “That’s what I’m trying to say, when you help someone, you help yourself.”
Trailer: Noodle (Hebrew)
But that message, no matter how politically correct it might be, is problematic for marketing “Noodle.”
“It’s much easier to market movies about soldiers, about terrorists, about homosexual soldiers and religious people and social tensions, because these are issues that are very specifically Israeli and the world is interested in seeing that,” Menahemi said.
“People might say, ‘Why do we have to see normal people having problems in Israel? We can see that in independent American films,’” Menahemi said. “But when you get down to it, in most places in Israel—not Sderot—but in most places you find people leading normal lives. It’s about time that when people see Israeli movies, they realize that, as well.”